The poster boy for the game-changing phenomenon that was John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in 1986 may have been Chow Yun Fat, a moderately famous actor catapulted to icon status, but the real heart of the film was not Chow, it was the friendship between his character and Ti Lung’s. Indeed the pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung was so brilliant, their chemistry so complete, it’s no wonder they were reunited just one year after their A Better Tomorrow characters went out in a blaze of glory. Directed by Shaw Brothers veteran Sun Chung (a lesser-known director from that stable but also one of the most interesting), City War is obviously a riff on Lethal Weapon which had come out the year before, and whose pairing of two cops, one by-the-book, one a mad dog, is replicated here, though with an interesting twist. In Lethal Weapon the mad dog cop is a loner, and the by-the-book one is a family man ; here it’s the reverse. Another interesting reversal of expectations is that Chow Yun Fat, whom based on his A Better Tomorrow persona you’d expect to play the loose cannon, here plays Chiu, a cop who likes to play it safe, while Ti Lung is the hot-headed, authority-averse one.
That’s about it as far as originality is concerned. The plot is nothing to write home about : ten years ago, mobster Yiu (Norman Tsui) was sent to jail after being arrested by cop Ken (Ti Lung). During the arrest, his brother was killed and he was rendered impotent by a nasty family jewels injury. Now his sentence is over, vengeance is on his mind, and the fact that Ken’s negotiator friend Chiu (Chow Yun Fat) is having an affair with his girlfriend Penny (Tien Niu), is not making things better, at all. The film takes its time to set up this simple set of stakes, but never gets boring because while the pacing isn’t exactly on the breathless side and there are a few unwelcome comical scenes, three plotlines converges slowly but inexorably : Yiu’s return to life as a free man, faced with his pride-mangling impotence and thirst for vengeance (especially interesting thanks to a typically intense and charismatic performance by Norman Tsui), Chiu’s courtship of nightclub singer Penny (complete with a Carmen-inspired song performed by Anita Mui), and Ken’s frustration at the death of his old pal Ho, who took part in the fateful arrest ten years ago.
Around the one hour mark however, Sun Chung (who even in his Shaw Brothers years liked to shake it up a bit), decides that hell should break loose and a shocking turn of events, well, makes all hell break loose. Yiu sends assassins (among which a young Robin Shou) to Ken’s house, and the resulting action scene, in which Ken tries to fend off the assassins and protect his family, is a shockingly tense, brutal and unforgiving piece of filmmaking. From there things go really fast to a simply stunning, bronze-hued shootout in a bus warehouse, where Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung battle it out against Norman Tsui and his goons. It’s an amazing final action scene that should be much more famous than it is as it stands as one of the very best ‘heroic bloodshed’ finales in the history of eighties Hong Kong cinema.
Long Story Short : After a watchable but slow and derivative build-up, City War erupts in some of the most brutal, unforgiving and exhilarating action of 80’s Hong Kong cinema. Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung’s chemistry is a joy to watch, again. ***